Aquifers and Well Owners: a Looming Crisis

by Larry Losoncy, PhD

The headlines of the day focus on droughts, very serious droughts. But, as the June 4, 2007 issue of Newsweek pointed out, water quality, not just quantity, is an equally serious worldwide problem.

We Americans are only now beginning to hear headlines about water quality issues. If North America had one great blessing for centuries it was an abundance of good water. There was never reason to worry about water quality or quantity. Many of us still remember drinking from wells and streams in our youth, which, if we drank from today, would kill us. Water was to be found practically anywhere. Good wells lasted seemingly forever.

Population growth, industrialization and heavy use of fertilizers have changed all that. Wells are running dry and well water is becoming contaminated. The quality and quantity of available drinking water from wells is being severely compromised. Available water for irrigation drawn from wells is diminishing. The outlook in the United States is for both increased scarcity of water and health threats from contaminated water.

Around the world, millions of people, mostly children, die every year from drinking bad water. It could happen in North America, too. That is why all the fuss right now, to make sure it does not happen here and to remedy the situation around the world. Related to these issues are concerns about the use of agricultural fertilizers and pesticides, disposal of industrial wastewater, the impact of septic systems on the quality of ground water and a general concern about what to do with wastewater.

To discuss and debate solutions, it is helpful to understand more about aquifers. Aquifers are water-bearing rock or other materials such as gravel, sand, silt, or clay from which water can be extracted. The popular conception of underground water is that it exists as lakes, rivers or pools under the earth’s surface and that it comes from rain. But, in fact, underground water exists in materials, mostly porous rock, that absorb water and then also allow the water to seep back out into lakes, rivers and wells. Rainwater only goes into shallow aquifers, not all aquifers. Some of the biggest and purest aquifers are so deep that rainwater does not affect them at all. The deep aquifers can be drawn down and are indeed being drawn down. They cannot, however, be replenished except over hundreds of years.

Those aquifers replenished by rain are also impacted by any other sources of water going into the ground. This includes wastewater being dumped into the ground both legally and illegally. If rainwater can get to the aquifer then so too can chemical spills, toxins, fertilizers and disease-causing organisms spewed onto the ground or into streams and rivers that interact with shallow aquifers. In periods of high waterflow streams and rivers replenish aquifers, while in periods of low flow the aquifers replenish the rivers and streams. When a river or stream runs dry it means the aquifer has also become too low.

When the river or the water drawn from an aquifer shows pollution, it means both can be polluted because they interact. Pollution can get into aquifers but it is nearly impossible to get rid of pollution once there. As an example, a number of aquifers are being drawn down on the East Coast. As water is taken out the vacuum is filled by saltwater from the ocean, thereby ruining the aquifers.

Not much was known about aquifers beyond the fact of their existence, until serious mapping, study and testing during the last few decades. There is still much to be learned. Information from what has been learned so far about aquifers is available through the US Geological Survey office under the Internet call letters of USGS as well as Internet searches under the heading of aquifers.

Enough has been learned, however to be certain that this source of good water is limited, vulnerable to pollution and is being overused at an alarming rate. For well owners the implications are immediate: protect the quality of your well from overuse and pollution, check the quality of your wellwater at frequent intervals and do not assume anything about the future of your well. If enough water is drawn by you and others from your aquifer you won’t have a well. If enough pollution gets into your aquifer from various sources your well will be useless.

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Larry Losoncy is the president of Clean Up America, Inc. The company manufactures and markets  The Sanitizer™ non-discharge, evaporative toilet.  To learn more about The Sanitizer™ please go to http://www.cuaproducts.com.